SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
- Shortly after Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014, US and NATO troops began training Ukrainians.
- As part of that, US trainers set up a version of US Army Special Forces’ “Q course” for Ukraine.
- “Q course” assesses Green Beret candidates and teaches them the basics of their profession.
In 2014, Russia seized Crimea and large swaths of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, setting off a long-running conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed fighters in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Eight years later, that low-intensity conflict escalated into a full-scale war, after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine in late February 2022 to topple the government and install a new one under Moscow’s influence.
During the intervening eight years, the US and its NATO allies were instrumental in helping Ukraine prepare to fight off that invasion, providing security assistance, intelligence, and military training.
In September, the leaders of US Special Operations Command Europe described how the Ukrainian military adjusted and evolved after the initial Russian invasion and how US special operators borrowed a unique part of US Army Green Beret training to prepare their Ukrainian counterparts to fight Russia.
Ukraine’s ‘Q’ course
Candidates during US Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection at Camp Mackall in North Carolina in March 2020.
US Army/K. Kassens
Following Russia’s 2014 invasion, the US military created the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, which brought conventional and special-operations troops from across NATO to train Ukraine’s military in modern war-fighting methods.
That training created a corps of professional troops with which Ukraine is now beating back the Russians. Although there was some staff-level training on how to fight a large conventional conflict, most of the training concerned tactical-level operations, including small-arms proficiency, marksmanship, close-quarters combat, and patrolling.
“I think one of the key programs we created was a Q course, a force-generation model for Ukrainian [special-operations forces] much like US Army Special Forces and their Q course,” Navy Command Master Chief Peter Musselman, the senior enlisted leader at Special Operations Command Europe, said during a New America event in September.
US Army officers train Ukrainian troops during a combat exercise at a base in Yavoriv, Ukraine in October 2017.
Gaelle Girbes/Getty Images
The “Q course,” officially called the US Army Special Forces Qualification Course, assesses and teaches Green Beret candidates the basics of their profession. Special Operations Command Europe — working through the US Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, which is responsible for Europe — developed the course for their Ukrainian troops.
“The Q course puts unique pressure on teams and individuals. Aside from the world-class training, it truly helps to identify and select the best of the best,” John Black, a retired Army Green Beret warrant officer, told Insider.
Lasting anywhere from 56 to 95 weeks, depending on the Green Beret’s military occupational specialty, Q Course includes unconventional warfare, small unit tactics, and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training. It culminates with Robin Sage, a large-scale realistic exercise that puts all the skills into action.
The elements of Q Course that the Ukrainians have incorporated into their selection and assessment process allow the instructors to choose the best troops. For students who go through the training, the course offers them the opportunity to perform their best under stress and pressure, Black said.
A Special Forces candidate crosses a water obstacle during Robin Sage in central North Carolina in July 2019.
US Army/K. Kassens
“Being able to closely look at the individuals going through the course, then identify and select the best from that pool, is incredible. This is why the Ukrainian [special-operations force] is as strong as they are and able to handle their current conflict,” Black added.
The relationships that US troops built with their Ukrainian counterparts during that period are now making it much easier to advise and assist the Ukrainians on the ground.
US Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Edwards, commander of Special Operations Command Europe, said the Ukrainians have been “very successful” in fighting the Russians and that their success is “truly a testament to the quality of training” provided by NATO special operators.
Remote train and assist
Ukrainian troops during a training session at their base in Slavyansk in September 2014.
ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian special operators have been put their training to use by ambushing Russian armored columns, conducting long-range reconnaissance, and by generally augmenting Ukraine’s conventional forces on the frontline. But the war has affected the level of interaction that US and Ukrainian operators have been able to have since 2014.
Musselman, a Navy SEAL, said American special operators have had to advise their Ukrainian counterparts from a distance since Russia launched its renewed attack.
“Where previously we were able to interact with our Ukrainian partners on a daily basis, we now find ourselves having to communicate via remote devices, telephones, computers,” Musselman said. “So that adds another level of complexity.”
Edwards acknowledged that some NATO militaries still have special operators in Ukraine, though strictly in an advisory role, and that US special operators “rely heavily on them” to understand the situation on the ground.
US Special Operations Command doesn’t have an official presence in Ukraine and has adopted a “remote advise and assist” role there, but it is safe to assume that US special operators have some sort of footprint in the country — likely through US intelligence agencies — to help Ukrainians with their training and logistical challenges.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.